10 November 2009

Washtub Bass

Occasionally known as a gut bucket, the washtub bass produces low sounds from the vibration of a string. Usually one string, but occasionally as many as four, the vibrations of which are amplified using some sort of container. And yes, the use of a washtub is common - that's one of those shallow, galvanised steel washtubs, kind of like a low, flat bucket. It doesn't have to be a washtub, though - a similar sound can be produced by upturning a tea-chest, a trash can or even the top section of an old oil drum. In fact, washtub basses come in so many different varieties it's hard to keep track. Ranging from the extremely simple to the very complex, the quality of the bass and the skill required to play it seem to depend very much on the time and attention its owner has to lavish on it.
Let's start simple, though: The washtub, upturned and placed on the ground, has a long handle attached to it, towards the edge of the washtub bottom. The washtub rim often helps here, as the end of the tip can be rested against the inner surface of the rim. A pool cue is recommended, as it will have a ready-made grip area near the top, but a pine broom handle is a cheaper option. A string is led from the upper end of the handle to the centre of the washtub, perhaps with a pair of eye bolts.
And that's about it. Holding the handle, the string is now plucked to produce the note, the pitch of which can be varied by increasing the tension on the string (like twanging a rubber band). This can be achieved by tilting the handle back or forwards. Alternately, the handle could be fixed to the base of the washtub, and the string's vibrating length changed by holding further up and down the stick (as one might play a standard bass guitar). Interestingly, the design of the washtub bass leads to the strings pulling on the surface of the sound chamber, rather than pushing, making the washtub bass a relative the tin can telephone or, more prestigiously, the harp family.
No reference to washtub basses is complete without a nod to Fritz Richmond. A quick search on google will confirm his position as the world's foremost washtub bass virtuoso, appearing on a variety of recordings and as part of a variety of bands. Jim Kewskin's Jug Band, the inspiration for numerous other artists, featured Richmond on bass. Ry Cooder's album Into The Purple Valley, Tom Rush's Blues Songs And Ballads and John Sebastian's I Want My Roots all feature Mr Richmond. Highest praise of all comes from one website which declares Richmond to be master of the three washtub bass essentials: delivering the beat, playing in tune and supporting the style of the music.

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